You wonder if you are alive
And you're not sure if you want to be
"I love what you've done with the place," the notes of her voice are the same as he remembered. He thought that maybe they would be different, that maybe crying out his name in agony every night would have made her sound lower, raspier.
His work has exploded over every surface of her bedroom – or what used to be her bedroom. A large map is stuck to the wall with tape, a series of lines and symbols messily scrawled across its surface in thick red and blue marker. It hangs a little crooked, but that seems perfectly in keeping with the mess of papers and files that are piled up and spread across every horizontal surface. Eventually, when he'd felt brave enough, he'd renovated her room into an office – an arrangement that allowed him to work himself to the brink of exhaustion and then stumble across the hall to pass out in bed. Or rather on bed, usually still fully clothed. Those nights were the best: dark and dreamless, he woke up exhausted, but at least he didn't wake up screaming.
"I'm sorry about the furniture and clothes and everything – I gave everything away. I guess I… just uh," he stumbles awkwardly, tension written along every note of his body language. He's barely keeping it together, a tremor escaping through his hands every now and then though he keeps them clenched tight at his sides. "I just.."
"Didn't think I'd be needing them anymore? It's okay Chris, I don't mind. You did what you had to."
"I kept all of the pictures and everything. They seemed more important." The picture of them together at the anniversary is in a frame on his dresser. There are days when the sight of it makes him happy and bolsters his resolve, but there are days when it just makes him feel incredibly lonely. It's hard to say which outnumbers the other.
"Thank you," the smile she gives him is genuine and sincere. It's been years since he's seen her smile like that and the effect is contagious. The corners of his mouth ache to smile back, but he can't. Not yet.
"Jill, I – " His breathing is a little strained, but she kindly doesn't comment on it, even if it does force his words out at an agonizing pace. "Is this a dream? I don't care anymore if it is, but I… I need to know."
"I can't tell," she looks around the room, takes in every little detail that's changed and all of those that haven't. Her eyes finally settle on him, the smile fading from her lips. "You never look like this in my dreams – you always look the same, the way you did that day by the lake. You look a lot different now."
He is different now. He's bigger than he used to be, and harder too, all sharp lines and angles and powerful muscles that glide under his skin. There are dark crescents etched under his eyes, the kind that never really fade away, and his jaw is rough and unkempt with stubble.
"You look exactly the same. You always look just like this."
While he has aged a month for every day, she has remained the same, like nothing ever happened. She could have walked right out of the photo on the dresser and back into his life. In the back of his mind, Chris wonders if there are scars knitted together across her chest and stomach. Or did the wounds fade away back into clear, smooth skin? Or, like always, do they remain lurking just under the surface, waiting to reopen and stain his hands crimson.
"Chris…" she steps forward, reaching up to touch the strands of silver at his temple. The coarse, colourless filaments seem so at odds with the boyish smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose and cheeks. But he flinches back from her fingertips and she withdraws her hand, curling the digits into a tight ball at her side. "Do I disgust you?"
It's meant to be a simple question, not an accusation, and she does a commendable job of keeping her voice even and calm despite the undeniable current of hurt that runs through it. She still bites the insides of her lips when she's anxious.
"No," he's quick and firm to answer. "Never. You would never disgust me."
"I disgust myself, sometimes," her eyes are averted from his, looking off somewhere beyond his hip into the hallway. This Jill is different too; she seems more timid in her own skin than she used to. Something in her confidence has been shattered, the edges razor sharp and pointed. Chris knows too well what it feels like to stumble into the verge of your own resolve and come up bleeding.
He wants to reach out and reassure her, and touch her, but he's so afraid. How can he explain without sounding like a lunatic? How can he explain that there are these rules and if he touches her there will be consequences and she will suffer? And he will suffer?
"…I don't want to hurt you," it's the best he can do. He's so tired of suffering. Sometimes he feels like he must reek of it.
"You wouldn't hurt me…"
"Yes I would… I do… all the time."
Her eyes find his again, pure blue against a brown and gray genetic anomaly. She can see right through him, right through to the very core where all of the guilt and hate and self-loathing has melded itself into his marrow. All of that rage has contorted the familiar elements of him, twisting them in some ways, honing them in others. He is more merciless than he used to be, but more dedicated, more efficient. He is disconsolate in his personal life and yet incredibly successful in his career. But he wants her to see beyond than that, beyond the sleepless nights and forced detachment, the endless days spent immersed in the fight. He wants her to look deep inside and tell him if there's anything left underneath it all.
She reaches out for him again, and this time he doesn't pull away, letting her take one of his hands between both of hers. The skin of her fingers is soft and cool against his overheated flesh. She looks down at the clenched fingers with their scabbed up knuckles and rough fingernails. The nail of his index finger is black, a large scratch running down from the cuticle. As always, she understands.
"Let go of this, Chris."
"You can; it's okay now."
"Why? Why do you have to do this to yourself?"
"Because… because if I wake up and you're gone again, this," he puts his other hand over hers, "is all that I have left."
It's important that he tells her all of the things he never made time for before. It's important that he at least tries to get them out before… before who knows what happens; it's always something different. But there are so many words that they lodge, soundless, in his throat, choking him. Despair and desperation fill him up like a drowning man's lungs until he's suffocating, harsh, ragged breaths heaving in and out, short and fast. He blinks, grabs on to the door frame, pulls at the collar of his shirt, but nothing eases the panic. It's happened before, this kind of wretched attack on himself where he fades out from the world. But never this bad; never in front of somebody else.
"Chris?" Jill grabs his arm, trying to bring him back to Earth. "Chris?!"
She pulls him across the hall to his own bedroom, forcing him to sit on the edge of the bed with a firm, insistent pressure on his shoulders. Then, more gently, her hands press his head down between his knees.
"Just breathe okay?" the soothing familiarity of her voice coaches him. "Just take one deep breath, okay? Through your nose."
One cool hand is placed against the back of his neck where the blood is running hot and fast up into his skull, threatening to boil. And then he can't resist anymore, he's pulling her up into his arms and closer still. His hands find their way home to the curve of her waist, his head to the soft slope of her neck. A sudden relief, refreshing and cool, floods into the burning void in his chest with a shock that makes his muscles contract.
"Just don't let go this time. Just… just don't… don't let go this time, Jill." It's the desperate plea of a frantic man hanging, strangling, at the end of his rope.
"I never let go," she murmurs against his temple, her lips trembling a little to see him in such a state; they still feel each other's pain as their own.
She is warm and sweet-smelling and just feels so damn good, so right, holding him back like that. This is what he has longed for through days and nights of lonely agony. He has filled his life with orders and strategies in an effort to replace the feeling of her up against him and it's never worked, not for a fraction of a second. The comfort of her embrace is a reward he never knew he could receive again.
"You're going to be okay Chris," her voice is soft in his ear over the steady, even thump of her heartbeat against his cheek. All he can hear is her heart, her voice, her breathing - so much steadier than his own….
And the steady click of her watch counting the seconds. He tightens his fingers into her flesh, hard enough to bruise, refusing to let go. They'll have to kill him first this time.
"Chris…" She sounds alarmed, but doesn't pull away, just crushes him tighter into herself, alarmed by the sudden distraught panic radiating off every inch of him.
"Jill…" His voice cracks. It's still embarrassing, but it still doesn't matter.
"It's okay now, Chris. I've got you." She surrounds his entire awareness, the great, comfortable haven of her arms, the steady drum of her heart in the undamaged wall of her chest. His partner, his best friend, he can't hear the words she mouths against his temple.
Chris can feel the beat of his heart in contrast to hers, the light clamminess of sweat under his palm where his hand has ridden up under her shirt to lay flat against her skin. Even with his eyes closed everything is golden, warm, real. His brain is an inferno, rent between faith and disbelief. He has felt her with him, her strength in his veins, her iron will bolted to his own backbone, but he hasn't felt her like this since she bled out in his arms and he died right along side her.
And it's so beautiful
She's so beautiful.
The author would like to acknowledge the use of lyrics from the following songs:
Matthew Good Band:
Running for Home
A Boy and His Machine Gun
The Centre of the World
A Poetic Retelling of an Unfortunate Seduction
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy:
Death to Everyone